RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: DEFENDING THE MOST MATURE LEVEL
Those following this blog well know that I have been encouraging readers to be able to recognize five levels of maturity for responding to criticism. As I began my efforts, first I provided a lesson about the first four levels of maturity (see RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: FOUR LEVELS OF MATURITY). One approach I used to defend the first four levels follows:
To find out how people feel about different styles of responding to criticism, I made a lot of TV shows with a variety of actors.
In each show the actors respond to criticism in different ways. Then I asked others to watch the shows. Together, we discussed their reactions to the way the people in the video recordings handle the criticism.
I soon became very familiar with what people like and respect when it comes to responding to criticism. This helped me to come up with four different ways to handle criticism. I put them in order from the least respected to the most respected. Level one is the least liked. Each higher level is viewed as more mature, likable, and respected by those who watched the video recordings.
Unlike the first four levels of maturity, it is not as easy to make video recordings of people displaying a level 5 response because quite a bit of this level’s response occurs up in the head of the responder. To understand this better, let’s briefly review the level 5 response (For a complete description of level 5 see RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: THE MOST MATURE LEVEL).
LEVEL FIVE. In addition to actions consistent with level 4, people responding to criticism in a manner consistent with level 5 seek ways to use, whenever they disagree with the criticism, a technique known as steering in the direction the criticizer would prefer to go. That is, rather than just disagreeing without being disagreeable, the criticized person seeks to find a new choice of action that creatively utilizes some aspect suggested from the criticism. Steering cannot be incorporated into all situations, but it is an additional goal of the most mature individuals.
Consider a quick example. My wife, Andrea, and I are getting dressed to go to a party. As I begin to put on a shirt, Andrea criticizes my choice, saying, “That’s not quite right for this occasion.”
As I prepare my response in my mind, I realize that I disagree with her. But before I begin to disagree with her, while at the same time trying not to be disagreeable or defensive, I silently ask myself, “Is there someway I can steer in the direction of Andrea’s criticism?”
I quickly realize that I have two other shirts that I would enjoy wearing to this party as much as the one I initially picked out. And so, I pulled them out of my closet and said to Andrea, “Well, if you don’t like the one I picked out for this evening, how about either of these two?”
“Oh,” she says, “the one on the left would be perfect. Thanks dear.”
And so, from this example, you can readily see that a good part of my response occurs in my head as I tried in my mind to come up with an option that both Andrea and I would end up feeling comfortable. Said a little differently, I searched my mind to see if I could find a win-win response to her criticism.
To illustrate my using a level 5 response, I could use some type of a gimmick such as having me strike a classic pose of someone thinking and then my head would appear above me, and it would start to speak the words I’m supposedly thinking. This has been done effectively in the movies, but it’s just not as clean an approach as the one I used to demonstrate the validity of the first four levels, and I’m not sure how to go about creating the special effect of the extra head gimmick. And so I’m going to defend level 5 in another manner.
Originally, I had formulated the current five levels system as a four levels system, but when I heard Professor Richard deCharms speak at a conference back in 1977, he convinced me to add the fifth level. He spoke about how most teachers treat their students like pawns, rather than origins.
When people feel like pawns, they feel pushed around, and they feel that they are like puppets with someone else pulling the strings.
Feeling like a pawn may be contrasted with feeling like I have an influence over what I do—that I have played at least a part in originating my behavior. Such a feeling, Professor deCharms told the audience, is what he called, “feeling like an origin.”
An idea that is similar to the one Professor deCharms describes has been referred to as the powerless versus empowerment spectrum. People who perceive themselves powerless often experience alienation or reactance against those perceived as the bosses.
In the business world, leaders attempt to get their subordinates to “buy into a plan” by asking for their feedback and trying to use their suggestions as best as they can to strengthen the plan. This strategy doesn’t always work, but leaders know that it has the potential to improve the process of implementing the plan.
To see what happens when teachers act in ways that are designed to lead students to feel like origins, Professor deCharms and his colleagues designed a project that provided a unique training program to inner-city teachers. His findings are dramatic.
- Academic achievement as measured by standardized tests was significantly better in the classrooms after the teachers received the training. In fifth grade, the children in this inner-city district were typically more than one-half year behind national norms in grade equivalent scores. This downward trend continued in the children who had teachers who did not receive the training so that by eighth grade they were a year behind national norms. The trend was reversed for the children who had the trained teachers to the point that they gained, on average, more than a full year between the end of sixth grade and the end of seventh grade and maintained their advantage through eighth grade.
- School attendance and punctuality were positively affected in the classes with trained teachers.
More recent studies provide further evidence that students are more likely to act in accordance with group decisions or school rules if they have participated in forming them.
Steering not only improves learning and behavior but health outcomes as well. In a remarkable series of studies at a nursing home, elderly residents were each given a choice of houseplants to care for and were asked to make a number of small decisions about their daily routines. Nurses were taught to steer in the directions the residents requested. For example, residents requested a movie be provided each evening in the community room. Although there was inadequate funds for this, the nurses did increase the number of movies that were shown from occasionally, to once per week. A year and a half later, not only were the residents who had nurses that learned to steer more cheerful, active, and alert than a similar group in the same institution who were not given these choices and responsibilities, but many more of them were still alive. In fact, less than half as many of the decision-making, plant-minding residents had died as had those in the other group.
Some people, when they first hear about steering, express concern because it seems to them that it requires that they give up on holding fast to their treasured ideals. “It is just designed to promote conformity!” claimed a student. “If a teacher criticizes the length of my hair, if I don’t cut it a little shorter, does that make me immature?”
“I’m against war,” said another student. “With steering does that mean that to be mature I must come to a position that holds that a little killing is okay? Steering means that the only proper ideal is to be middle of the road, a position that I despise.”
My response to these examples is to explain that I am not proposing that every time you are criticized you must make some change. Steering envisions that the person criticized makes an effort to see if there is some way out of the conflict, a way where two opposing views can be reframed into an original and larger context that provides new values to both parties. This may be difficult and at times not always possible or desirable, but as we move along, I hope to show that it is possible far more often than commonly believed.
 Richard deCharms, Enhancing Motivation: Change In the Classroom, New York: Irvington Publishers, 1976.
 N. Way, & M. G. Robinson, 2003, “Effects of Perceived Family, Friends, and School Experiences on Change in Self-Esteem among Urban, Low-SES Adolescents,” Journal of Adolescent Research, 18, 324-346. M. Wang, 2009,
“School Climate Support for Behavioral and Psychological Adjustment: Testing the Mediating Effect of Social Competence,” School Psychology Quarterly, 24, 240-251.
E. J. Langer and J. Rodin, 1976, The Effects of Choice and Enhanced Personal Responsibility for the Aged: A Field Experiment in an Institutional Setting, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191-198; J. Rodin and E. J. Langer Rodin, 1977, Long-Term Effects of a Control-Relevant Intervention with the Institutionalized Aged, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(12), 897-902.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.